Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fear and trembling

A week ago Saturday Karen and I took the kids to the Peoria Zoo. While we were there, we stopped by the lion cage. Within a span of 5 minutes, both of the lions walked by within inches of us. All that separated us was 2” of heavy-duty glass and 4” of air. And I’ve got to tell you, there was an aspect of that which was pretty exhilarating. I could see the muscles ripple under the skin, the power in their stride, the length of their fangs, and the deep predatory gaze of their yellow eyes staring back into mine, unblinking. I was in awe of these creatures, but I was also just a little bit afraid, and very glad that we were separated by that heavy-duty glass. If I were inside the glass, I strongly suspect that the mixture of awe and fear would be radically reversed, with the balance heavily tilted toward fear. The reason, of course is that while a lion truly is an awe-inspiring creature, it is also one which is fully capable of destroying you. Those 3.5" long claws and teeth aren't decorative, after all.

And something like that healthy fear is, I think, what Paul has in mind when he writes:
continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling - Philippians 2:12b
A lot of people want to downgrade the word “fear” in this passage to something like “reverential awe.” But I think that when we do that, we are somehow trying to domesticate God, cutting Him down to a size where we can deal with Him. We know that the wild, untamed God of the Bible really exists, but a God who is smaller, less fearsome, and more cuddly seems to be...well... so much more comfortable than a God we ought to have a healthy dose of plain old fear of. Because after all, we don't need to be afraid of God as believers, do we? I mean, God loves us, doesn't He? Which is of course true. God does love us and He will never destroy us as He will destroy the wicked one day. But I suspect at least part of us wants God to be less fearsome, to be less the Warrior who treads the wine press of God's wrath (Rev. 19:15) than the gentle shepherd who carries the lamb on his shoulders. We want less the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and something more along these lines...

But back in verses 10-11 of the same chapter, Paul said that something pretty fearsome would happen to all humanity one day. One day, the Day of Christ, we will stand before God in all of his glory and bow our knees before the Lord Jesus. And even though God loves us, even for us who know Jesus, standing before the ascended and glorified Son of God will be awe mixed with a healthy amount of just plain old fear. After all, if being in the presence of a lion, which is just one of the host of creatures that God was powerful enough to create ex nihilo is enough to cause us to (quite rightly) get that tightness in the pit of our stomachs, then why do we think standing in the presence of THE LION will be somehow less mixed with fear and even trembling? God does love us, and those of us who love and follow Jesus don’t need to be terrified that God will destroy us, but a healthy dose of what the Bible calls the fear of God is not a bad thing, but a motivator to flee from sin. Because who wants to stand before God and give account for rebellion? Not me.

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